“Memories, they can’t be boughten. They can’t be won at carnivals for free. Well it took me years to get those souvenirs, and I don’t know how they slipped away from me.” ~Steve Goodman~
My childhood was nearly perfect. Epic, even. It was one adventurous foray after another. There was no clock ticking, no deadlines to meet, and certainly, no bills to pay.
Life started a bit roughly for me, though I have no real knowledge of it, except for what was related to me on numerous occasions. Mom’s eyes would sparkle with laughter, especially when she got to the part about me being a rather hard-featured newborn. When I came into the world it was as a kicking breech birth—feet first and my legs were pumping because I was drowning. The doctor got me out, suctioned the gunk from my throat and lungs, and when I started hollering, he laid me on my mother’s bosom.
I was her third child. She took one glance at me and her eyes went wide. She had two beautiful little girls who’d been born with lots of hair. As she looked at this skinny boy she actually wondered if I belonged to her. I was 23 inches long and weighed 5.2 pounds, with big knobby knees and not a single hair on my head—I was as bald as bald could be. She told me many times that after the initial shock of my gangly appearance she thanked God and prayed for me. It was a prayer that she’d pray repeatedly over my growing up years—a prayer about the soil of my heart—a prayer that in a long period of exile, haunted me.
Never mind that stuff about exile and haunting. This tale is to be a happy journey through the caverns of memory. My sisters, Jane Ann and Janice, welcomed me. We became very close. They were friends before they were sisters, and I can honestly say that we never had any scraps that developed beyond childish disputes over silliness.
We seldom had two pennies to rub together, but no one told us we were poor, so what did we know? Fun was everywhere and we never had any difficulty finding a good time. Even the chores that took up a portion of every day had pleasant aspects. Jane Ann and Janice taught me much about mischief. I tagged along with them nearly everywhere. Of course, they made me play house with dolls and do other frilly girly things like dress-up, but I survived.
I have one particular quirk that they are directly responsible for, though they may shoot up waves of denial, facts are facts, which cannot be denied. They instilled in me a lifelong phobia of amusement park rides.
It occurred at a nighttime excursion to what was then called the Welland County Fair—an annual September pilgrimage. An ordinary Ferris Wheel was the culprit. I was likely just too young to find enjoyment in it. I kept my eyes shut tight the whole time, and was scared from the start, but it’d be okay because I was squeezed between my big sisters.
My foot kept striking something, and though it was surely merely slapping against a sister’s leg, in my imaginings, I thought I was kicking someone in the head. When the big wheel began stopping at intervals, I thought I’d lose it—we were at the top of the sky. Jane Ann and Janice rocked the chair back and forth. I was screaming bloody murder. They were screeching laughter and merriment. When the ride was over, I was trembling and near tears. The noise and bustle of the midway swelled inside my ears and made me queasy. They grabbed me by the hands and dragged me back into line for another jaunt on the Ferris Wheel. I put up a feeble protest which was snuffed into silence by their gleeful insistence. The second spin was worse than the first—when I stumbled off, I bent over and regurgitated greasy fries and a chocolate milk shake.
Our two oldest granddaughters discovered this quirky peculiarity of mine and in their younger years took tremendous pleasure in giggling about it. They are likely still more than thrilled to report that when it comes to an amusement park, a carousel is fine and dandy, but beyond that safe and secure ride, their grizzled grandpa is a world-class wuss.
Our brother Rob was born in August 1960. He was frail and fragile, having a couple potentially fatal problems. For awhile it was iffy that he’d survive. A stiff wind could’ve carried him away, but toughness was bred in his bones.
He had a heart valve issue that required constant monitoring, along with many trips to specialists. To add to that problem, before he was five years old he had to overcome a serious kidney malformation which required major surgery at Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto. The scar was massive—it made it appear as though he’d almost been cut in half.
Rob grew into a good friend and playmate. We went on long hikes and did an awful lot of fishing—we’d catch a mess of sunfish and rock bass at the quarry, clean them up and have a cook-out over a campfire. There was a battered old cast iron frying pan that we’d wipe out with dry sand or gritty stones, then stash in a hidey-hole amongst the rocks.
All the trouble and escapades that Jane Ann and Janice introduced to me I gladly passed along to Rob. There were also new and inventive ways of getting into jackpots that we’d engage in with unfettered abandon.
A baby sister came along in July 1966. Even at this far distance peering down the tunnel of time the circumstances are still humorous. Mom and Dad had been convinced that they were having another boy, so there’d never been any names for a girl in consideration. She came home from the hospital as an unnamed bundle of joy. Naming the baby became a drawn out family conference. I lobbied for Elizabeth, because I’d become fascinated by the Elizabethan era, but lost out.
If my some-timers—sometimes I remember, sometimes I forget—isn’t flaring up, the chubby little girl was eleven days old before she was christened Jennifer. The name had staying power—may the Lord have mercy on your soul if you ever call her Jen or Jenny.
Her two older brothers can still get away with her nickname, Dud—some adults thought it was derogatory, but reality is quite different. Rob gave Jennifer the tag Dud because she was sweet, like Milk Duds, a popular chocolate of the time.
It was a period of innocence—a place where stories were born.
“All the snow has turned to water, Christmas days have come and gone. Broken toys and faded colors are all that’s left to linger on. I hate graveyards and old pawn shops, for they always bring me tears. I can’t forgive the way they robbed me of my childhood souvenirs.” ~Steve Goodman~
In the summer of 1969, I was soon to be fourteen years old. Nixon was in the White House and the entire world seemed to be unraveling. Vietnam invaded our living room via grainy black and white news reports. We gathered around the idiot box and watched the ugliness unfold. Closer to home, beauty was becoming mighty important. Girls were a new discovery for me—all of a sudden their smiles made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Their eyes had magic in them—their straight lines transforming into curves was much more than magical.
Music also was taking on an importance that’d impact me in ways that I could’ve never imagined at the time. That summer Big John Cash and Bob Dylan became lifelong running buddies of mine.
Being tough was important—looking tough was even more desirable. To get that James Dean swagger down meant much prep making my unruly hair curl just exactly right. The peer pressure to be cool also resulted in a flirtation with tobacco, which became an addiction that lasted twenty years.
Life happened in 1969—a freak accident, a whole slew of misdiagnoses, eight months of limping around, and lots of angst landed me in the Welland Hospital in March 1970. I spent six months there—adolescence arrested and stuck inside a body cast. I got released in mid-September. It was my family that kept me tethered to the ties that bind. No mention will be made of the tennis balls Janice smuggled in for me to entertain myself by bouncing them off the walls. Each shipment would eventually get confiscated by the nurses, but then, as soon as soon could be, Janice would ditch school and show up with another supply.
I likely also shouldn’t write about Rob’s hijinks and misadventures. On some Saturdays he’d get dropped off at the Blue Star Restaurant, a couple blocks from the hospital. He’d buy a large box of French fries and bring them over for us to feast on. When we were finished he’d get a stretcher and maneuver it beside my bed. I’d shift onto it, then we’d go on a tour of the third floor. When the restraining body cast was removed sometime in July, I was allowed in a wheelchair, which meant we became extremely mobile.
We’d explore the entire hospital and more than once got chased off the fifth or sixth floor. Once we tried to get onto 2-South, which was the psychiatric ward, but couldn’t manage to do so—a security guard was standing outside the elevator door when it opened. All we really wanted to do was to see if the place really had rubber walled rooms.
Who knows? The way life goes perhaps one of us will get an up close and personal view of a psychiatric facility someday. After all, on more than one occasion there’ve been remarks made about us losing our marbles.
Nor should I say much about Dud climbing up on the bed to play on the overhead monkey bar apparatus that’d been installed to help me move or adjust my position. She’d hang on it and swing as though she was on a playground. Mom would shake her head and smile. Everyone would have a good chuckle, which would encourage Dud to try other antics.
At some juncture Dad would decide enough was enough. He’d snatch her, give her a good tickle, then put her on his shoulder or make her sit on the window sill.
During my unfortunate incarceration, big changes were happening in the family. Jane Ann married Al in June—the plaster around me was still in place and kept me sequestered at the hospital. Not being able to attend was a huge disappointment that stuck in my craw for a long while, but I was included in the festivities. After the ceremony and pictures, the whole wedding party and hosts of relatives descended on my hospital room.
Now at this point, some may be wondering what does any of this have to do with the blue plate in the title. Well, give me a chance; I’m getting close to it now.
Food had a near talismanic power in our house. It was used to celebrate or to soothe and ease a burden—certain dishes come to mind so easily and are so vivid as to be almost tangible. The kitchen table was the family meeting place. It was where homework was sweated over and childhood problems were given perspective with the scent of molasses cookies or cherry squares baking. A suppertime gathering around that table meant a hashing over of current events—many world problems got solved while we enjoyed fine meals.
Mom was an exceptional cook, who delighted in trying new recipes, and took enormous pride in putting the evening meal or Sunday dinner on the table. Cleaning our plates was always a strict requirement. Hospitals have a reputation for poor fare in the food department. A one-liner warning from my Uncle David has stuck with me forever: Flush hard, it’s a long way to the cafeteria.
The first Sunday I was in the hospital, my parents and siblings arrived mid-afternoon. Mom had a big surprise for me. She carried in a cardboard box with the sides cut low and covered with a towel. She put it down and lifted a plate encased in tinfoil. As she carefully unfolded the shiny wrapping, she told me that Grandma Major was giving this plate to me. It was a special plate, though in all the years that followed I never did learn why it had an importance for my grandmother. It became a touchstone for me because it came from Grandma, and Mom lovingly prepared and delivered meals on it.
That day the aroma of roast beef and gravy tickled my nostrils. I was in traction, lying at an odd angle, so eating was a herky-jerky process that I managed without spilling too much.
Every Sunday afternoon, Mom would bring a home-cooked meal to me—every Sunday. For the whole six month stint in the hospital, she never missed once. Sometimes there would even be mid-week evening delights, especially when it was porcupine balls, smoked haddock, or one of my other favorite dishes.
It was home; it was family; it was love—these snapshots from the past are full of tenderness that still warms me from the inside out.
All these years and miles later, with my grandparents and parents gone to glory, the blue plate lives on, and still gets used.
I was extremely fortunate in that I tumbled head over heels in love with a young lady who’d been schooled in the ways of cooking. Along with being my best friend from our earliest meeting, she became my life-mate. Now with our forty-fifth anniversary in a rapidly receding rearview mirror, Anita still has a way of reading my moods. History has proven again and again that she responds with gentleness that often defies rhyme or reason.
When she sees discouragement or the tell-tale signs of the black dog blues getting ready to howl, she prepares a favorite dish of comfort food, and serves it on that same distinctive blue plate—Buffalo China Lune, made in the U.S.A. is stamped on the back. Yes, here’s a grand confession: Anita coddles me. Evidently wanting to be a tough guy at fourteen didn’t work out all the way into my sixties; or maybe toughness has nothing to do with outward appearances.
Perhaps toughness is about being sensitive enough to get watery-eyed because of childhood souvenirs, yet seasoned enough to know that life goes on—life is precious and as long as our storyline is alive, nothing is impossible or irreversible. While we slug it out on the gravel roads of life, redemption of any situation can be our constant hope.
That’s a blue plate special guarantee.